PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Union General William Tecumseh Sherman got it right when he said “War is hell.” He would get no argument from the thousands of men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I always tell people, these soldiers, for the last 12 years have been doing bad things to bad people, and you have to live with that the rest of your life,” Ken Falke said.
Thousands of miles away from battlefields, hawks soar over a patch of Virginia countryside. It is here, embraced by the Blue Ridge Mountains, that the first of its kind Boulder Crest Retreat is attempting to undo some of the harm our troops still suffer. It aims to heal wounds that are clearly visible or not.
“We try to understand from the minute that somebody makes a reservation to come here exactly what help they need from us,” Falke said;
For Falke, Boulder Crest Retreat is a dream realized. Ken, who was raised in Plum Borough, was a highly skilled specialist in disposing of explosives – like roadside bombs.
Retired from the Navy in 2002, he built a successful defense contracting company working in Iraq and Afghanistan. He then sold the company and began building a sanctuary for seriously wounded warriors and their families.
“The whole concept initially was to give these families a local place where they could come for rest and recovery, reconnection time,” Falke said.
Some of visits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are seared into his memory.
“A young guy, probably my daughter’s age, 20-21-years-old, wife had obviously had the baby while he was deployed. He had lost his legs. The wife was pushing the wheelchair. He was pushing the baby’s stroller,” Falke said.
He and his wife Julie donated the 37 acres and $1 million cash for seed money. The annual budget is $750,000.
“And our donors have stepped up. We’ve raised $6.5 million in 18 months and we have $3.5 [million] to go, but at the end of the day, I’m not worried. We’re going to get there,” Falke said.
The long term costs of meeting veterans need are huge.
The non-profit puts families up in four “green tech” handicapped accessible cabins for up to two-weeks. There’s a handsome lodge, holistic wellness programs, a playground, fishing and archery, quiet trails and kayaking on the nearby Shenandoah.
“In the non-traditional sense, no medications and just a healthy healing with the outdoors has really come together. It’s an amazing place for people to come and have a free place to stay,” Falke said.
That’s right. It’s all free to these families fractured and fragile dealing with long hospital stays or combat PTSD.
“There are estimates, that a third of the force that is deployed which is probably 400 to-500,000 people are suffering from some level of post-traumatic stress. We hosted a group last week called ‘Save A Warrior’ and they specialize in dealing with warriors who have the ideation of suicide. We had ten guys here who at one time or another were at the point where they wanted to kill themselves. Some of them wouldn’t even shake your hand the first day. When they left here they all hugged each other,” Falke said.
This place of peace just officially opened in September. Boulder Crest is an easy less than four hour drive from Pittsburgh, which makes it a real resource for Western Pennsylvania military veterans and their families.
Transcendental Meditation is one of the alternative healing offerings at Boulder Crest.
“I hadn’t slept for an-hour-and-a-half, two hours for 17-18-years. After I learned, I went home, slept 12, straight hours,” Dusty Baxley said.
What Baxley learned was Transcendental Meditation. Now, a certified instructor, the former Army Ranger teaches veterans.
He began with men at a VA facility on suicide watch.
“This tool allowed them to experience themselves again, to be able to have a tool to where they could dive down – experience some deep rest. And so, they got better and by the end of two months of teaching this, the wives would come up and hug me and say, ‘Thank you for bringing my husband back,’” Baxley said “In our country, we have celebrities as heroes. We have athletes that are stars, but the men who stand in harm’s way, to provide us our freedom are kicked to one side are really not looked after.”
In Reserve Township, a family is reaping the benefits of time spent at Boulder Crest.
“We were only there for a weekend, but it was just – we’d say we have to go back. We have to go back because it’s so calming,” Theresia Ditto said.
She can’t say enough about the gift of nature walks and family bonding.
The Ditto family, Theresia, Michael, and their children Katarina, 4, and Luka, 6, were one of the first families to discover the healing feeling at Boulder Crest.
Michael Ditto enlisted in the marines at age 19. It was a promise he made to his dying mother.
Four years later, he re-upped after Sept. 11.
Michael survived suicide bombers in Iraq and was an original member of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command. Numerous deployments added up to severe battle fatigue. He came home last November for good. He knew that he was in trouble.
“A lot of it was, you know, anger. The nightmares weren’t stopping, and just the load on my shoulders. It came to the point that I knew that if I didn’t do something about it, that my family was going to suffer more,” Michael said.
“He was not the same person at all. He came home and he was quiet and distant,” Theresia said. “I always tell him he was emotionally numb.”
Michael was diagnosed with combat PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. It took him a while to admit it.
“Because you don’t want to be perceived as broken or weak. You hide it, all those little issues, so that when you get come you’re just numb, you’re just exhausted, you’re mentally exhausted.” Michael said.
Wearing a Survival Strap on his wrist to remember the fallen men in his unit, Michael is finding now strength within his family and within himself and said Boulder Crest provides a perfect balance of solitude and reconnection.
“The therapeutic aspect of this is just untouched it really is,” Michael said.
For Theresia it was a Godsend.
“We just kept saying, ‘I can’t believe we’re not paying for this.’ It’s such a release of stress. It’s such a great program that I want to see supported forever,” Theresia said.
The hope is to host 250 to 500 families a year.
Falke, wants it to be a model.
“What I’m hoping for is that people are inspired by this project and will build 20 or 30-more of these retreats around the country,” Falke said.
For more information about how veterans can apply for a stay at Boulder Crest or to make a donation check out their website here: www.bouldercrestretreat.org